It’s never too early

Recently AT colleague, Thomas O’Shaughnessy from Ireland, reached out on Twitter with this question:

Here is what I responded:

For some reason, this question from Thomas has stuck with me. I know many educators are hesitant to introduce assistive technology too early for they feel it will hinder skill acquisition or they fear kids will rely on it too much and not flex their skills. I understand these feelings; however, think about the kids who struggle so deeply with their learning challenges that they feel defeated over and over. Our upper school is reading Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (a book every educator should read), and the feelings the main character Ally, who is dyslexic, has and the lengths she goes to avoid attention, learning, and the classroom overall, because she is so frustrated and embarrassed, proof enough that whatever we can do to help students feel positive about themselves is crucial. Many students who come to my school, The Southport School, have had similar experiences, the feeling of defeat is real. Yet even with the right interventions, skill acquisition can take time. A defeated student is also not always emotionally available for learning, so effective instruction can seem just as daunting to them.

There are many ways to booster LD students emotional well being to help them be open to learning, most often it is helping the find successes, no matter how small. One way to achieve this is with assistive technology. Every start of the year, I work with each lower school working class to introduce the powers of text-to-speech (TTS) and speech-to-text (STT). (We are an iPad based school. The built-in accessibility of the iPad is a larger reason this is our device of choice for our students) I think back to a class last year that really hit this idea home. This class of students was mainly new to our school, and very weak on their writing skills due to their dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The idea of just producing 3 simple sentences was daunting. So the teacher and I worked together to first teach them how to use the features of their iPad. We gave them time to “play with them” and create a simple expository piece. Then the teacher worked through the planning process to help them plan out their next writing piece. The students then were then asked to writing a paragraph of at least 5 sentences. No student had ever come close to this task, except for possibly having a person scribe for them in their old schools or at home. The students succeeded with relative ease through the use of their devices. I think most of this one boy, who maybe had the most struggles. His previous avoidance of writing tasks was notable and his ability to produce even simple written sentences was laborious. This young man, when given this task and the ability to dictate his writing and listen to it himself to check for errors, produced half a page of well-crafted writing. The joy and pride he showed still brings tears to my eyes. He was so proud he immediately wanted to go show his academic advisor. This was a huge step…he found his abilities.

Now did this teacher stop working on handwriting, or having students complete some tasks in handwritten form? No. When the task was to work in handwriting (we still teach cursive for studies show it can help with the acquisition of reading skills), or when the task required a short sentence or two, she still had these students use paper and pencil. But when the task was the production of lengthy pieces, when the task was about composition not handwriting, students who found that dictation was their more successful mode of creation utilized it.

This is just one example of which I can share many. My experience as an assistive technology integrator is that students will leverage it only when they truly find it to be the most effective mode to meet the learning task. I have yet to find a student who over-relies on the technology and resists the parallel instruction of skills. Some students do need guidance to find balance and determine when and what assistive tool is most impactful for tasks, learning with any technology is a skill that needs direct instruction just as much as any other learning task. Yet the change in the emotional well being, the sense of feeling successful, possibly for the first time ever, is what the power assistive technology can bring. The earlier we can help students find learning success, with or without technology, can go a long way to not letting them fall down and faces the feelings like Ally expresses in the book, or like my students express when they start at our school.

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